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“You no like cats?” she asked, her accent thick.
“Not when they fight. They’re too noisy. They’ve kept me up every night since I got here.” To ensure she understood, Mark imitated the cat’s wail: “Arraaaaao-arraaaaao-arraaaaaao,” but he stopped when he noticed a partly puzzled, partly horrified expression cross the woman’s face.
“Cats too noisy,” he repeated, speaking louder, hoping to clarify.
The woman jiggled her dog’s leash again.
“No trees either,” he continued, pointing to the tree branching out above their heads.
She looked up: “No trees?”
“Well, just these. These are the first I’ve seen since I got here.”
The woman looked toward the park entrance and Mark turned to see what caught her attention. Walking in an orderly line was a group of people, dressed in dark colours, except the last who wore red and yellow. Lagging behind, he had a fat, projecting lower lip, pug nose, protruding ears, and eyes set conspicuously far apart.
Mark sighed. “And there’s a lot of retards here.”
“Rey-tard?” the woman repeated, her “r” on a continuous roll.
“Ree-tard,” he enunciated.
“What is ree-tard?”
“The last one on the end. They all look like that,” he explained, tapping his right temple for emphasis. “Not much in here.”
She squinted. Mark wasn’t sure she grasped his meaning.
“There’s a lot of ’em near my hotel.” He declined to say hostel and admit he travelled on a budget. “There must be an institution near there, where they live,” he said, letting his lower lip hang out, effecting a vacant stare. His vocal chords vibrated a steady “Uhhh” as his eyelids fluttered. This attempt at imitation also failed. Another odd look crossed the woman’s face.
“Mongoloids?” he proffered.
“No capeesh?” he said, wondering whether Italians really said "capeesh" to one another. In Berlin he had heard a German woman say: “Vunderbar!” and, yes, just the other day a gondolier sang: “O Sole Mio,” the way gondoliers sang it in cartoons.
He thought harder. What were they calling retards these days? Mentally disabled? He decided she definitely wouldn’t understand that.
“Down’s syndrome,” he finally said. The woman nodded but Mark suspected she was no closer to comprehension. Silence ensued until he found more negative things to say about his host city. “And all these canals,” he went on, “they’re just open sewers, aren’t they?”
The woman raised her right eyebrow a fraction of an inch.
“I mean, when you flush a toilet in Venice — or Venezia, whatever you call it — it drains into one canal or another, doesn’t it?”
The woman remained puzzlingly silent. Mark expected agreement. Surely, if she lives here, she’s noticed a few faults.
“Too many tourists,” Mark added after another long pause. “This city is crawling with them. That must be why you came to this park; that’s my excuse — I needed a break and this is the only place to escape those hordes.”
“You are tourist,” the woman noted.
“Well, yes, but there doesn’t have to be so many, don’t you think?”
She nodded. Mark was happy they finally agreed on something. He was making progress at last. His eyes wandered over her body. She wore a gold anklet. Strands of white dog fur clung to her black skirt. Scanning her face for hints of character, he knew he would give up if he spotted a mean streak in her.